by Janette W. Burr
|Published in the January 1999 Issue of Anvil Magazine
Dusty Martin did all his own shoeing. So when he called me to shoe Old Striker, I knew it wasn’t because he was too busy.
Old Striker had the notorious reputation for being the rankest horse in the country from the ground. Once aboard, he was a real cowboy’s mount and made many an average buckaroo look mighty shiny. His riding manners were the only thing that kept Old Striker from ending up in a dog food can.
Nobody was sure of the true history behind Old Striker, but stories were told about years of abuse from an old farmer who thought he was a cowboy. By the time Old Striker had been “roughed out” with plenty of firm abuse, he had the farmer too scared to crawl aboard. Luckily, a drifting cowboy bought the horse and helped polish Old Striker’s natural abilities, making him one whale of a riding horse. But Old Striker never lost his distrust of a person on the ground, and he was a bear to shoe. Nonetheless, I had my foolish pride and refused to turn down the challenge when Dusty called me to shoe Old Striker.
I arrived at the Martin Ranch early in the morning. Old Striker was tied to a stout tree with plenty of clearance. It took me several minutes of soft talk and slow movements to finally pick up a front foot and keep it between my knees. I had just begun my first nipper cut and was feeling pretty proud of myself when CRACK! Pain shot through my head and everything instantly went black. I hadn’t expected Old Striker to get me with the back foot on the same side where I was working, as most horses won’t do that. But Old Striker wasn’t like most horses.
Just about the time I thought things would be black forever, they began to get lighter. I opened my eyes, but the brightness made me quickly close them again. After several tries, I was finally able to keep my eyes open. Everything was beautiful and golden. I could see huge golden gates, intricately forged. Beside the gates sitting at a golden desk sat a kindly looking old man dressed in a white gown. I walked over to the man and asked politely, “Who are you, and where am I?”
The man smiled warmly and replied, “I’m Saint Peter. Welcome to heaven.”
I nearly fainted from shock and decided Old Striker had hit me harder than I thought. I surely never expected to end up here!
St. Peter opened a huge book on the golden desk and asked, “Now, what is your name and your occupation?”
“Ben Summers,” I replied. “I’m a farrier.”
“A farrier?” he asked with a puzzled look on his face.
“Yes, that’s a horsesh”
“I know what a farrier is,” he broke in, “It’s just that we haven’t had a farrier here in centuries. Oh, most farriers are good people and start out okay, but it seems like they work too many rank horses with uncooperative owners. Or, they get lazy and start pounding cold iron. You know how either of those can turn a person from the straight and narrow. Here’s your name, sure enough. Come on in and we’ll find someone to show you around.”
I cautiously passed through the golden gates, still not quite believing I should really be here. I’d always tried to be a good, honest person, but I’d done my share of mischief-making too, especially as a kid. However, my name really was in the book (I saw it there myself), so I guessed I’d look around a bit.
They sent an old cowboy angel to show me around and he did make me feel more at home. He was dressed all in white, including chaps and hat, and said to call him Slim. Slim took me directly to the heavenly stables. Everything was made of gold and was immaculately clean. A beautiful white horse tied with a golden rope was standing in a stall. Slim said I’d have to help keep up the heavenly herd of horses, but they’d be no problem. Then he handed me a gold shoeing box full of shiny tools.
“These here are fer you to use,” Slim said, smiling.#
I couldn’t believe my eyes! The box contained all the tools I’d ever dreamed of owning, but could never seem to afford. All were gold, of course, and looked better and sharper than I could have ever imagined. I fondled every tool and decided this heavenly business just might be okay.
“You ain’t gonna need to do no shoein’ up here,” Slim commented. “The clouds are so soft the horses don’t need no shoes. So, all you’ll have to do is trim fer balance. Go ahead and git started on this here white mare if you’d like. You only have to work when you want, so don’t bust yer gizzard.”
The white mare was obviously a gift of God. She’d pick up her feet for me before I’d even ask, and they were the healthiest I’d ever seen, no cracks or problems of any kind. Why, they weren’t even dirty! All I had to do was a little bit of rasping. The rasp was so sharp I had to be careful not to take off too much. The mare stood beautifully, and it was unnatural to work under such perfect conditions.
I’d been in heaven about a week when I noticed my heart just wasn’t in my work anymore. All the horses had behaved like perfect angels; the working conditions were perfect; and my tools were fantastic. But, I was bored. Corrective work and fractious horses had always given me variety and kept my job interesting. Plus, I missed sitting around swapping stories with all my old shoeing buddies. I just wasn’t happy here in heaven.
About that time Slim appeared. “As I’m yer guardian angel, I’m supposed to help you work out yer discontent with heaven,” he said.
“How did you know?” I asked.
“The Boss heard yer heart and sent me to do a little dickerin’,” he explained. “If you want, we can arrange fer you to visit hell. After you’ve cast an eye on it, you’ll be free to choose what side of the mountain you want, top or bottom. Once yer there, you’ll have twenty-four hours to make up yer mind. If you haven’t asked to return topside when the clock runs out, you’ll have to stay down yonder. So, give us a holler if you want to come back up. Well, would you like to mosey on down?”
I thought for a moment, and decided 24 hours in hell couldn’t hurt me any. I could find out what it was really like and then make up my own mind. At least I’d have some variety for one day. “Okay,” I told Slim, “let’s find out what it’s like in hell.”
“Right now the clock is straight up,” said Slim, looking at his golden pocket watch. “You’ll have to make up yer mind by noon tomorrow. If we ain’t heard from you by midday tomorrow, you’ll be a permanent resident of hell.”
“Well, open the gate, Slim,” I stammered nervously.
A brilliant light flashed through the air, and I had to close my eyes to keep from being blinded. When it seemed safe to open my eyes again, I looked upon some very different surroundings. In front of me stood an old dilapidated barn with broken-down corrals and rats running every which way. The manure looked to be about four feet deep in the corral. One of the large barn doors had fallen from its hinges, and I could hear voices coming from inside. I carefully picked my way to the opening and looked in. There sat about a dozen of the old farriers I had known in my lifetime. I was so excited I started to run over to exchange howdies and shake hands, but suddenly Slim, my guardian angel, appeared before me. “I’m sorry, Ben,” he said sympathetically. “This ain’t no social visit; them fellers can’t see or hear you. You’ll only be able to talk to ‘em if you stay past noon tomorrow.” Just as quickly as he had appeared, Slim vanished. I slowly walked up to where the men were sitting around the only halfway clean spot in the barn. Not a head turned.
The farriers were sharing stories about old shoeing times. It was music to my ears. If I hadn’t looked around me, I’d have sworn I was in my kind of heaven. The men talked half the night as if they hadn’t spoken in years. I sat glued to the conversation. When the last of them finally fell asleep in his place, I realized that I, too, was exhausted and fell asleep.
I dreamed about spending the rest of forever sitting around swapping stories with these good old friends. I had heard a lot of wild stories about hell in my day, but this wasn’t half as bad as I had expected. If hell meant good times with good friends, I was all for it. At least I wouldn’t be bored forever. I could hardly wait for noon tomorrow.
It seemed I had barely fallen asleep when I awoke to a loud shriek. I opened my eyes to see a bright flash of fire and the devil himself standing in the midst of the flames. “Get up, you lazy bums!” the devil screeched. “I give you one day off every five years and you think you can be lazy again. Grab your tools and get to work!”
My friends jumped to their feet in fear and grabbed their beat-up old shoeing boxes. Their tools were dull, rusty, and the cheapest on the market. The hammers all had splintered, broken handles. The supply bins held rusty, used shoes, and the only available nails were bent and heaped in a corner. Hundreds of fiery-eyed horses crammed the small corrals. It took at least two farriers to capture an animal and get a halter on it. I saw four farriers wrestling one especially rank stallion. As the men fought the unbroke, aged stallions, the devil barked angrily, “Hurry up and get these animals shod or you’ll be whipped again with red-hot quirts. You’ve got to finish all these horses before you’ll get any rest at all!”
My head was reeling with panic, and I feared for my abused friends. I desperately wanted to help, but at the same time thankful I wasn’t being battered by the rank animals or the devil. As I futilely reached out to assist an injured farrier, I glanced at the watch on my wrist 11:59. Oh, no! Only one more minute to decide. What should I do?
“Ben, Ben, are you okay?”
I looked into Dusty’s face as he bent over me. The sky was blue behind him and the air fresh and clean.
“Are you okay, Ben? You’ve been thrashing around muttering about angels and hell and all kinds of crazy things. I’m sure glad you’re awake now. Old Striker clipped your head with a hind foot, and you were out cold.”
I slowly pulled myself to my feet and gingerly felt the goose egg, which had risen on the side of my head. “How long have I been out?” I inquired.
“Just a couple of minutes,” Dusty informed me.
“Well, Dusty,” I said, “You can shoe Old Striker yourself. I hate making big decisions.” Dusty had a rather puzzled look on his face as I packed my tools and left the ranch.
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